Staff spotlight on Clinical Program Manager Elizabeth Zacher Burke, LCSW

Staff spotlight on Clinical Program Manager Elizabeth Zacher Burke, LCSW

In her short time with Casa Pacifica, Ventura County native Elizabeth “Beth” Burke has used her experience working with LGBTQ+ youth in New York to strengthen our SOGIE (Sexual Orientation Gender Identity Expression) support on campus. Over the past 25 years, Casa Pacifica has proudly made a name for itself as an affirmative and safe place for LGBTQ+ youth. In honor of Pride Month, we asked Beth some questions about Casa Pacifica’s approach to supporting LGBTQ+ youth.

What does SOGIE mean?

SOGIE is an acronym that stands for Sexual Orientation Gender Identity Expression. We’ve taken to using that term because it’s inclusive – everyone has a SOGIE. Our My-dentity group celebrates and is a place for exploring SOGIE issues, anyone can come into that group regardless of how they identify: hetero, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or anything else. We recognize and celebrate diverse SOGIEs.

Walk us through a typical My-dentity group

First of all, this weekly group is not a required part of any program, it is purely comprised of youth who are interested and want to be there. Numbers fluctuate depending on the current milieu but generally it’s at least 50% participation and we’ve had as high as 95%. The whole point of the group is to support, celebrate, and allow a safe space to explore SOGIE issues. We always start out with “sticky topics.” Each youth gets sticky notes and can anonymously write down any questions or topics they would like to discuss. This activity is particularly effective at engaging the youth who are usually quiet or shy because they can ask questions or bring up topics without feeling self-conscious. If sticky topics doesn’t take up the entire time or there is something SOGIE-related that I think they should be aware of, I bring up a current event that’s relevant to the group and we discuss it.

In what other ways do we support LGBTQ+ youth on campus?

We have a SOGIE task force comprised of passionate staff members where we talk about how to support the youth and even staff members. Our goal is to make Casa Pacifica a SOGIE safe and diverse place. The task force was responsible for converting many of our campus bathrooms to all gender bathrooms. Our biggest support for LGBTQ+ youth on campus is staff training. When staff join our team they know that we’re a place that affirms diverse SOGIEs and we come from an affirmative stance. We don’t question youth, we believe them when they tell us their identities and treat them as such – we even let them choose what cottage they will be in based on where they feel comfortable.

We’ve had trans youth who transitioned cottages part way through their stay with us, and we had a youth come to Casa Pacifica as a trans male (assigned female at birth but identified as male) and decided to be placed in the boys cottage. Over the course of their stay, they decided they were non-binary and were more comfortable in the female-identified cottage so we moved them. Other youth come in with a fixed identity and we’re working on a completely different issue. It’s not once size fits all, different things work well for different kids. If we give them space to explore and they arrive at a deeper understanding of themselves, isn’t that the best outcome?

What does Pride Month mean to you?

Pride month is a great opportunity to celebrate diversity and SOGIE diversity in particular. I also think it’s a great opportunity to enlighten people who aren’t familiar but also enlighten each other and think about how we better improve support for not only our LGBTQ+ youth but the entire LGBTQ+ community.

I’ve been doing this for a long time, primarily in New York which is very diverse. I wanted to come back to my hometown and serve the county where I grew up, but I was initially a little nervous. Would there be places that are doing good work and taking an affirmative stance? I was drawn to Casa Pacifica because of the inclusive approach they take with their diverse population and the staff who work towards social justice in all issues.  This feels like a particularly important moment in our history, where we can celebrate pride by condemning not only heterosexism but also racism and all of the other oppressive “isms” in our society.  We are always striving to do better and will continue to do good work not only for our LGBTQ+ youth but all the youth in our care, and each other.

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